Aluminium company Alcoa has been ordered to pay the medical costs of a former employee diagnosed with bladder cancer 12 years after working at its Geelong plant. The decision may affect more than 7000 past and present workers.
County Court Judge Graeme Hicks yesterday found Geoffrey Stevens’ work as an operator in the plant’s pot room, where coal tar is used to smelt aluminium, had “materially increased the risk of contracting bladder cancer”.
The decision opens the way for past and present employees to sue Alcoa should they contract bladder or lung cancer, as the finding established that the nature of their work need only carry an inherent risk and did not actually have to cause the illnesses.
Mr Stevens, 63, of Scarsdale, near Ballarat, worked for Alcoa between 1977 and 1988. He was exposed to potential carcinogens that were released into the pot room.
Mr Stevens was awarded “reasonable costs of medical, hospital, nursing and ambulance services” incurred as a result of his bladder cancer. The costs will be paid for the rest of his life. He is also considering seeking damages from the company.
After the finding, Mr Stevens’ lawyer, Marcus Fogarty, of Slater and Gordon, described it as a test case with “significant ramifications” for Alcoa and other aluminium smelting firms.
“Certainly, with the latency period of the illness, there are potentially quite a few people who could be affected by this finding,” he said. “Symptoms could take 15 to 20 years to manifest.
“It’s a great result for Mr Stevens who has had to fight for the best part of two-and-a-half years to get his compensation benefits paid.”
Alcoa spokeswoman Joan McGovern said after the finding that the company was sorry Mr Stevens was ill but his employment at Alcoa was not the cause of his bladder cancer. She said the company was considering grounds for appeal.
However, Judge Hicks found that Mr Stevens had “suffered an injury by way of a gradual process due to the nature of his employment”.
In December, 1999, Alcoa sent out about 3000 letters advising former employees to have medical checks for lung and bladder cancer. The letter was prompted by international research, which had found “a small increase in cancer risk could be expected at lower levels of exposure” to coal tar pitch than was previously accepted.
Mr Stevens was found to have bladder cancer in January, 2000.
While Ms McGovern said the company’s letter was an attempt at “raising the bar” to protect workers, Judge Hicks found that Alcoa was in fact concerned “the nature of its employment could adversely affect some of its employees”.
Mr Stevens yesterday said he had had his bladder removed in March, 2000, and in the subsequent year was admitted to hospital “nine or 10 times” to correct a bowel obstruction.
“Every three weeks I get a heck of the run of diarrhoea,” he said. “There’s a fair bit of pain in there.”
In his finding, Judge Hicks noted that medical records showed Mr Stevens smoked up to 70 cigarettes a day during 1996.
Ms McGovern said one present employee of the company was undergoing medical testing.